The small Maf basic leucine zipper (bZIP) proteins MafF, MafG and MafK, while modest in size, have emerged as crucial regulators of mammalian gene expression. Intriguingly, small Mafs do not contain an obvious transcriptional activation domain. However, previously perceived as "mere" partner molecules conferring DNA binding specificity to complexes with larger bZIP proteins, such as the CNC family member Nrf2, it has become clear that small Maf proteins are essential and dynamically regulated transcription factors. Current data suggest stringent control of small Maf protein function through transcriptional and post-translational mechanisms. Initial gene targeting experiments revealed considerable functional redundancy among small Maf proteins in vivo. This was not unexpected, due to the high level of homology among the three small Mafs. Nevertheless, further studies showed that these transcription factors have critical roles in various cellular processes, including stress signaling, hematopoiesis, CNS function and oncogenesis. Recent data provide a possible link between small Maf-mediated transcription and the inflammatory response.